The recent attack on the British Council in Kabul by the Taliban shows that, apart from military tactics, there is an urgent requirement in the West to reconsider the political objectives in Afghanistan. Interestingly, “neutrality” has become the latest keyword resonating in Western discourse vis-à-vis the war torn country. In her testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted saying that the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) model of power realignment is most suitable for Afghanistan after the drawdown of coalition forces by 2014. In fact, the Western powers have initiated a massive diplomatic surge to make this happen. It is fairly well known that a “neutral” Afghanistan is in the interest of not only the regional powers and the international community but also the people of Afghanistan. Despite its necessity, however, the prevailing geopolitics of South Asia and the domestic politics of Afghanistan make the Congress of Vienna model and a neutral Afghanistan too utopian a dream to be achieved anytime soon.
To start with, the Congress of Vienna model per se and the characteristics of a neutral country as explicated in the Hague Convention of 1907 are not feasible in the South Asian context, and particularly not in the case of Afghanistan. The Congress of Vienna came about after the downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte, in which different European powers i.e. Austria, Russia, Prussia and the Great Britain, massively reshaped the borders of Europe to maintain peace and stability. The key characteristic of this Congress was the internal resolve among these powers to put an end to conflict using whatever mechanisms available, of course, after a lot of diplomatic trapeze. Plus, with the fall of France, they didn’t have to worry about a strong adversary opposing them in any significant way.
Now compare this with what exists on the ground in Afghanistan given the regional powers that are expected to sit across the table include India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, and the US. Firstly, India and Pakistan are nowhere near to sorting their differences anytime soon. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently visited Afghanistan and announced a strategic partnership with Afghanistan, Pakistan has its own interests and insecurities to look after in the Pashtun hinterland on its western frontier, as it simultaneously attempts to gain “strategic depth” against India. Secondly, the Afghans have little trust in Pakistan as well as the US and its Western allies. This is not surprising given the history of tense relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan due to the territorial dispute over the Durand Line among other issues. That the Afghans are generally wary of foreigners on their land is almost a cliché to mention. The unending attacks by NATO forces that have killed many civilians have emerged as a serious irritant in the already strained relationship between the government of Hamid Karzai and the coalition forces. Not surprisingly, President Karzai warned NATO that it risked being seen as an “occupying force” in Afghanistan if it continues with the lethal attacks that lead to excessive civilian casualties.
Adding on to these regional complexities is the opacity of China’s actions and intentions in the war torn country. While on one hand it is consolidating its economic presence in Afghanistan aggressively, it maintains an uncanny silence on the political front, and is more than happy to see the Americans bear the brunt of providing security. The US on the other hand seems to have its own agenda to maintain strategic presence in the region even after 2014 and is trying hard to build a strategic agreement with the Afghans. Adding on to the list of contentions is the standoff between Tehran and Washington as well as deteriorating relations between India and Iran. Tensions between Tehran and New Delhi got aggravated after the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), under US pressure, decided to call off the use of Asian Clearing Union (ACU) currency swap system to pay Iran for its crude. Given the geographic importance of Iran for India to access Afghanistan, this controversy is a major spoiler for India’s Afghan policy. All the powers involved in Afghanistan, thus, have conflicting interests and lack what was central to the Congress of Vienna model i.e. political will to solve the problem.
However, let’s be optimistic and say that these countries will show diplomatic maturity and agree upon turning Afghanistan into a “neutral” zone, on paper at least. They have already agreed to an Afghan-led reconciliation process, even if it was under pressure from the West. The question then is whether the domestic politics of Afghanistan allow such neutrality to sustain? As it is well known, the national reconciliation process and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are not in the best of their health. Some indicators of a weak security apparatus were the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and the assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, younger brother of President Hamid Karzai, allegedly by the Taliban, on 12 July 2011 in his home in Kandahar. The younger Karzai's assassination was swiftly followed by the killing of Kandhahar's Mayor, Ghulam Haidar Hamidi. Moreover, there have been a series of attacks by these insurgents that go unnoticed in the wider spiral of violence.
There are currently 2,00,000 Afghan soldiers coupled with 1,50,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. Despite such a heavy troop presence, according to a report released in June 2011 by the International Crisis Group titled “Insurgency in Afghanistan’s Heartland,” the insurgent groups have made tremendous strides in encircling Kabul and are running shadow governments in the region. The three main insurgent groups i.e. the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami, have strong presence in provinces south of Kabul i.e. Logar, Wardak, Ghazni, as well as those in the north i.e. Parwan, Kapisa and Laghman. The Haqqani network has also displayed capacity to keep Kabul psychologically terrorised by its sporadic attacks on high-value targets in coordination with the Taliban and the Hizb-e-Islami. The stronghold of these groups is more intensive in southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Nimroz and Uruzgan. Also, according to reports, the number of NATO forces is inadequate to counter these insurgent groups in central-eastern regions, and civilian casualties resulting from US Special Operation’s night raids and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) air strikes have only contributed in stoking support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Even the image of the Karzai government is not very healthy among Afghans. In addition to the rampant corruption in the financial sector of Afghanistan, which is primarily being used by the Afghan elite for personal benefits, the government has done little to strengthen its political base. The government’s campaign of harassment and intimidation of local Pashtun communities in wake of counter-terrorism, high levels of unemployment, and the breaking down of social structures like the tribal hierarchies (during Soviet invasion), which resulted in pushing youth into the insurgency, plays an important role in pushing people into the hands of Taliban. Moreover, the government has broken many promises of providing amnesty to people and return the land and property lost during the conflict. It has not even been able to solve water and land disputes that have been going on over generations, and push people into insurgency as it provides them with the power of the gun to solve family disputes. These issues get channelised into the larger national political spectrum and, in the border areas, even spill into the neighbouring countries such as Pakistan (in its Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces) or the central Asian republics. In essence, making it difficult for these countries to remain politically inactive even at the micro level.
In this situation, even if external forces agree not to make Afghanistan a battleground for their rivalries, they have strong interests in not having the Taliban in power once NATO forces leave. Given the current scenario, although the probability of a Taliban takeover of Kabul is remote, the possibility of insurgents consolidating their power base remains very high. Therefore, given these regional geopolitical constraints and domestic compulsions not only do the prospects of a neutral Afghanistan and the Congress of Vienna model remain bleak, it is too early to predict what shape the Afghan endgame might take.
 Dombey, Daniel & Green, Mathew (2011) “US aims to turn Afghanistan into neutral zone,” Financial Times, June 27